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Cyclocross

A road race repeat? Belgian team strength could see ‘cross worlds calamity

Heavily favored Belgian 'crossers hoping to avoid road worlds fiasco as absence of van Aert, van der Poel levels the playing field.

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Belgium lines up with three of the top contenders for the men’s cyclocross worlds Sunday. So bike-mad Belgian fans can bank on another rainbow jersey for the collection, right?

Don’t count on it just yet. Just ask Wout and Remco how racing a world championships can go when you look a shoo-in for the win.

Belgian trio Eli Iserbyt, Toon Aerts and Michael Vanthourenhout all have eyes on their chance in a lifetime at the Fayetteville ‘cross worlds this weekend.

They’re part of an awesome octet that could see any one of its number on the podium. But standout favorite Tom Pidcock – and the team’s own personal ambitions – stand square in the way.

No Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel means Sunday’s race offers a once-in-a-career opportunity for riders often left in the shade.

“You never know what the future will bring, but there is a real chance that I will never be at the start of a world championships without Wout and Mathieu,” Aerts told Het Nieuwsblad. “We will return to Europe in the coming years and it may just be that Wout and Mathieu will be back.”

Aerts, three times on the worlds podium but never with a win, has rainbows in his eyes. He’s not the only Belgian eyeing a fresh white jersey.

“I think I’m in good shape. It gets better and better. First of all, I’m going for a podium or victory myself, but I’m willing to sacrifice myself,” Vanthourenhout told Wielerflits this week.

Preview: Pidcock vs Iserbyt at ‘cross worlds? 

With personal ambitions at an all-time high among Belgium’s squad of stalwarts, the nation’s recent run of calamitous championships performances could continue.

“That could be quite an issue to overcome,” Pidcock said this week of Belgium’s depth. “I’m not entirely sure how well they’re going to work together to be honest, especially with no clear leader. They could all be racing against each other.”

Rewind four months and the beery Belgian masses were still broiling in the recent agony of watching van Aert, Remco Evenepoel and a stack of hot prospects get it wrong on the roads of Leuven.

A few months and a different discipline later, Dutchman Lars van der Haar picked off Belgium’s ‘cross crew one-by-one on the way to winning the European championships from far under the radar.

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“What happened to us, and I mean the Belgian team, at the European championship must not happen again at the world championships,” Iserbyt said this week.

“At the European championship, we had the upper hand in the first half of the match. Van der Haar had already gone and as Belgians we only drove against each other. The title already seemed to be ours, but we were rocked to sleep, Lars came back and he took the title. That must not happen again.”

Plan? What plan?

Aerts and Vanthourenhout fancy themselves in a rare opportunity to win rainbows.

So Belgium has a worlds-winning, teammate-appeasing, masterplan in place, right?

TBA.

“It will depend entirely on the circumstances,” Aerts said. “Who are we going into the final with, how did the race go. If I’m still in the last lap, I’ll look at myself in the first place. But I will also not cycle stupidly and will always look at a fellow countryman in the second instance.”

With tactics still hazy and the Belgian troika each bringing his own strengths to sandy soil of Fayetteville, things could go oh-so-wrong or oh-so-right in their mission to put a lid on Pid.

World Cup winner and firework-fast Iserbyt wants to see top rival Pidcock dropped early. Big-motored Vanthourenhout sees a long-ranger as his best hopes of rainbows. Aerts will take whatever he can get after a series of worlds near-misses.

“I think all three of us have an ideal scenario in mind, but if, for example, we go into the last lap with a number of compatriots at the front of the race, then there must be consultation,” Aerts insisted. “In any case, it must be the intention that a compatriot wins.”

Let’s see how that goes when world title fever kicks in Sunday.

If Netflix ever wanted to branch out beyond its Movistar series, a fly-on-the-wall of the Belgian bus Sunday could be a barnstormer.